Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on November 1, 2016.

Fire Service Connection

How NFPA is engaging first responders in safety initiatives, the code process, and more


Last March, my responsibilities at NFPA shifted when I became the association’s responder segment director, a newly instituted position to bring the voice of the first responder community to the organization. One way to hear that voice is to go out and listen, and I have been on a bit of a road trip lately to hear what’s on the minds of responders around the country.

When I asked responders I spoke with about their understanding of NFPA and the role we play in their work, “confused” was one response that struck me. Considering that NFPA’s standards guide firefighters through every step of their careers, including training, personal protective equipment, apparatus, and more, I found “confused” to be, well, confusing. Listening a little harder, I heard folks say they weren’t sure how prominent the fire service voice is in NFPA’s standards development process and how they struggled to understand the reasons for some of the revisions made to standards that affect responders.

And when I listened even closer, I heard that folks want timely information to answer these questions but that they do not want that information to come via another 20 emails from NFPA or five catalogs mailed to their homes. What they do want is information that addresses their needs, is easy to understand, and is delivered in a manner that requires minimal effort for them to retrieve. When I asked how they would prefer to receive this information, the overwhelming majority raised their smart phones.

These conversations have provided me with clear guidance on what responders want, and the recognition that NFPA has more work to do to reach them. The process also reinforced the feedback I received at last year’s first annual NFPA Responder Forum, where I was told that the fire service struggles to understand the role NFPA plays and finds it difficult to transition from reading the code or standard to applying it.

The Responder Forum is a forward-looking program designed especially to address these kinds of disconnects between NFPA and the responder community and to stimulate creative thinking and raise awareness. NFPA identifies emerging leaders in the fire service and provides them with full scholarships to attend the forum, where they discuss important issues on the horizon for their profession. The event also provides NFPA another opportunity to learn about their needs.

This year’s Responder Forum, which was held November 7–9 in Charlotte, North Carolina, focused on the firefighter of the future. The event’s keynote presentation, titled “The Future American Firefighter,” was delivered by Casey Grant, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, and is available online.

Throughout the forum, participants discussed emerging issues, including how innovations and emerging technologies are providing tools and solutions for the fire service at a pace we have never seen. We talked about the growing importance of data and the power of analytical tools to develop predictive models that can guide strategic and budgetary planning. We also discussed the current state of the U.S. fire service based on the results of NFPA’s fourth U.S. Needs Assessment survey.

NFPA continues to work to raise awareness of emerging issues within the fire service and of NFPA’s crucial role in responder safety. We must reinforce to firefighters the importance of their engagement with our standards development process and demonstrate the pivotal role they play in ensuring the safety of all firefighters. Whether it’s through firehouse visits and listening sessions or events like the Responder Forum, NFPA must continue to engage with the fire service to meet its needs.

KEN WILLETTE is fire service segment director at NFPA.